Her first book, What Remains: A Memoir of Fate, Friendship and Love, spent over twelve weeks on the prestigious bestseller list. The incredibly moving memoir chronicled Radziwill’s impressive career at ABC News, her marriage to Anthony Radziwill (the only son of Polish prince Stanislas Radziwill and Jackie’s younger sister, Lee Bouvier), and her close friendship with her husband’s cousin John F. Kennedy Jr. and his wife Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy. Tragically, in 1999, John and Carolyn were killed in an airplane crash, and three weeks later, Anthony lost his battle with cancer.
As a journalist, Radziwill has received three Emmy Awards for the work she’s produced all over the world – including places like Cambodia, Israel, and Khandahar. Her latest endeavor, however, finds Radziwill exploring an entirely new form of artistic expression: fiction writing.
Radziwill’s debut novel, The Widow’s Guide To Sex And Dating, hits shelves this fall. The book follows the charming self-rediscovery of Claire Byrne, a young woman who unexpectadly becomes a widow when her famous sexologist husband dies in a freak accident. The book’s witty humor and Didion-esque raw language provide for a gripping read that triumphantly announces a profound new voice in literary fiction.
Currently in the midst of filming a new season of The Real Housewives of New York City, Radziwill chatted with me about The Widow’s Guide To Sex And Dating, how she’s grown as a writer, teased what Bravo-holics have to look forward to, and more.
NAGORSKI: Claire’s late husband, Charlie, was notorious for stating that sex and love can’t co-exist. It wasn’t until after his death, however, that Claire was able to explore this theory and draw her own conclusions about it. Why do you think it took so long for her to step out of his shadow?
RADZIWILL: Well, she married him very young. She was just out of college and he was almost 20 years older than her so his shadow was all that she knew. It was big, and she was safe there, and it was only shortly before his death that she’d begun to feel dissatisfied in it. Claire is a woman bound to loyalty — to friends, lovers, psychiatrists. She tried to loosen her own inhibitions at one point while Charlie was alive, and explore her own boundaries around love and desire but she found she wasn’t capable of it.
When looking back on her and Charlie’s sex life, Claire noted that she “felt like a control subject in his research” and that she “was more lab assistant than intimate.” Do you believe that Claire would have been less lost following Charlie’s death had they kept a passionate and genuine sex life? Or was their relationship just too toxic for that to have made a difference?
It may have been much more devastating for her had they shared a passionate physical relationship. As it happened, Claire understood that she had this chance to start over, but Charlie had been the only serious man in her life. It’s difficult to uncouple, regardless of the circumstance or the nature of the relationship.
To me, one of the most interesting aspects of the book was its commentary on gender. “A husband dies and the world gets another widow. A wife dies, and a star is born,” Claire proclaims to her gay best friend. Why do you think our society is more apt to embrace a widower getting back into the dating game than it is a widow who does the same?
I think there’s a different expectation of loyalty for women than for men, and it’s very primal. Deep down, we still want someone to be in charge of the home fires, and that’s still a role we often associate with women. I don’t think men have the same expectation of loyalty, so it’s not surprising or upsetting when they are out dating the month after they lose a spouse, or remarried within the year. I see it all the time.
It doesn’t strike me as a coincidence that two of Claire’s main romantic interests, Charlie and Jack, are also international celebrities. What do you think it says about our fame-obsessed culture that we idealize these types of self-involved misogynists?
I think people are just drawn to a good narcissist. I mean, a really good one, not your average cocktail party hack. There’s an art to it. A good narcissist can make you believe you’re the two most interesting people in the world. They’re shiny, and the little magpie in each of us finds that hard to resist.
The book also presents the idea that women often feel threatened around their widowed friends because a widow can be desired for being someone’s lost treasure, as opposed to a divorcee, who can be viewed as another man’s unwanted baggage. Do you think this stigma can be deconstructed on an impactful scale? Or are humans too naturally territorial?
I think of it more in the sense of challenge. Men like a challenge, they like to win, they tend to — stereotypically — be more competitive in romantic pursuits than women. So I think of them as intrigued by the idea that another man left something behind that, theoretically, he still wanted. It seems more like a prize. Charlie had no intention of giving up Claire, but now he’s gone, so pursuing her is sort of a karmic win for his rivals.
Another facet of the book that I was very drawn to was its exploration of what happens when you’re given the opportunity to reinvent yourself. Claire thought she had already chosen her life’s path, but the death of her husband forced her to re-examine her choices and truly question whether or not she was ever sincerely happy. Do you think it’s possible to achieve this honest degree of self-evaluation without the catalyst of tragedy?
Certainly, it’s possible, but it takes a lot of courage. People maintain unhappy lives all the time, because they’re familiar and therefore safe. Routine often trumps happiness.
Tell me a little bit about the book’s title. The Widow’s Guide To Sex And Dating sounds more like a self-help book than a novel. Did you write Claire’s story as a way of helping others navigate their way through the various stages of this kind of loss?
The title is tongue-in-cheek. It came out of a conversation I was having with my longtime friend Christiane Amanpour. We were talking about dating and I was telling her some of my stories. She suggested I keep a journal and call it “The Widows Guide.” I kept the title, but not the journal.
Some of the scenes and situations I wrote in the book are over-the-top, for comedy. (In real life I didn’t fantasize about my funeral director in bed!) So I certainly don’t want women who are struggling through the very emotional process of widowhood to take anything at face value. It’s been 15 years for me, and it’s much easier to laugh now at some of the absurdities.
I found your 2005 memoir, What Remains, to be such a beautifully written and poignant story. With The Widow’s Guide To Sex and Dating, you’re publishing your first work of fiction. How were your creative processes different while tackling these two genres, and how do you feel you’ve evolved as a writer since your first book?
Thank you, that’s such a nice compliment.
It’s funny, I expected the fiction to be a nice break from the heavy emotional work of writing memoir. But writing fiction was a lot harder, from a technical standpoint. The creative process was fun — dreaming up scenarios and characters and giving them whatever little habits or quirks I liked. But once I put it all down in a first draft, I just had a lot of creativity. I still needed pacing, plot, structure, character development. While those things are important in memoir, too, the canvas didn’t feel quite so blank. One of the words my fiction editor wrote frequently in the margins was “unpack.” She’d write, “unpack this,” in places where I had a scene or a detail that wasn’t developed. My memoir editor, on the other hand, marked up my manuscript with the word “coy,” in places where I was guarded around a detail or scene because I was hesitant about how much to reveal. I’ve had to learn how to “unpack,” just like I had to train myself not to be “coy.”
I enjoyed the brief wink to Real Housewives of New York in the scene where Claire’s friend Sasha confesses that she has a habit of drinking alone in her bedroom while she watches the show. What can your fans and viewers expect from the series’ upcoming sixth season?
Ladies who lunch, brunch and walk and talk. Drama.
Has becoming a reality TV personality impacted your writing in any way? If so, how?
Yes, mostly in terms of time. The show is very consuming during the months of filming and also during the months that it airs. And writing has to be consuming, too, if you’re going to be any good at it. I need to write every day even if I’m not working on a specific project, or the quality suffers and then it takes time to bring it back up again. Also, the show is very structured with strict time commitments and I like a long lazy flow of time to write in. I’m working on a book of essays right now, while filming the show, and it’s very challenging to find the creative, unstructured space that I need.
Last season on the show, you mentioned that The Widow’s Guide To Sex And Dating was being considered for a television pilot. Have there been any developments on that front that you can share? And is the idea of seeing your work being translated to another medium something that excites you?
Television is still an option, I’ve had a lot of interest but haven’t found the right fit yet. Scripted television is so dynamic and creative right now that, of course, yes, I’d be thrilled to see Claire Byrne’s adventures come to life on a screen. I have so many great ideas for her.
Anything else you’d like to add about the book that we didn’t discuss?
These were great questions, thank you! I just want people to have fun with it.